Underfoot in Showbusiness
Helene Hanff, who achieved fame when her bestseller, 82 Charring Cross Road, was made into a film, described life at Deertrees during the summer of 1940 in her book Underfoot in Show Business: First I took a bus to Philadelphia, having a filial urge to see my parents and borrow the fare to Maine in case something went wrong in New York. Then I took a train back to New York and lugged my suitcases into Bela Blau's office and met the Deertrees stage manager, Bill Flanagan of Flanagan's Law, and the assistant stage manager who drove us to Maine in his elderly cream-colored Ford called the “Beige Bee” because he'd bought it with money he'd earned on a radio show called "The Green Hornet." The town of Harrison, Maine lay between two lakes with mountains rising beyond them and was as beautiful a spot as I’ve ever seen. It was a tiny town – population 200 – with three streets. We found the theatre just beyond the third street and it was as enchanting as its setting. The handsome log-cabin playhouse stood in the center of a hushed clearing circled by pine woods.
As we walked around to the back of the theatre to Bela Blau’s office the ground under our feet was a thick carpet of pine needles. Bela shook hands with me and said, beaming; “Your partner will be very glad to see you! She's a local girl and she almost quit when she thought she was going to be in there by herself. She's never worked in a box office before." I did not say "In a where?" and I did not tell him I couldn't add. If Bela Blau wanted me looking after his finances for the summer, that was his problem. Mine was to get myself installed in a summer theatre. After a day of considerable mental anguish I was finally installed in one and I wasn't leaving. Still, as I crawled into bed that night, in an airy bedroom in an old-fashioned frame house that let rooms to "summer people," I couldn't help feeling Bela Blau was in for a nerve-racking summer. And boy, was I right. I met Reta Shaw, my cellmate, the next morning. Reta was a stout schoolteacher with a pretty face and the most cheerful, unruffled disposition I've ever had the privilege of working alongside. She must have caught Theatremania in that box office because the next year she gave up teaching and went to New York to crash the theatre - and did. She began turning up on Broadway as a comedienne in "Gentlemen prefer Blondes" and "Picnic" and "The Pajama Game" and so forth' she was very much in demand for years.
The two of us were on duty in the box office from 9 A.M. to 9 P.M. daily, including Sunday. Salary: $17 a week. Eight of it paid the rent on the furnished room with breakfast thrown in, a dollar went for cigarettes (thirteen cents a pack in Maine that summer) and the remaining eight dollars bought seven lunches and seven dinners. The town of Harrison had one restaurant, Ken's Koffee Kup. If you didn't feel like eating there you could always starve. I have fond memories of Ken's place. The cuisine may not have been very haute but you got a lot of food there for eight dollars a week. Deertrees ran on the package system. In successive weeks we had Tallulah Bankhead, Ethel Barrymore and Grace George, each with her touring company and her ancient hit. Grace George, who had been a reigning star when my father was a chorus boy, had long since grown old enough and rich enough to spend her summers sensibly in Europe. Instead, she was touring the summer circuit in "Kind Lady." She arrived with her company at nine o'clock of a rainy Sunday night, having spent the day on the road from New Jersey where she'd played the week before. She announced that she would run through the play then and there, so that she and her company could accustom themselves to the new stage before the Monday night opening. But as I said, it was raining. Grace George walked into the theatre and realized there was going to be a hitch in her plans. Deertrees was built entirely of pine logs, by somebody who didn't realize that the sound of steady rain on pine walls and a pine roof is deafening. During a heavy downpour, the players' voices were completely drowned out and the show simply stopped. When the rain let up - ten minutes or two hours later - the show resumed. So at nine o'clock that Sunday night, Grace George and her company sat down in the damp playhouse to wait out the storm. The crew and staff drifted in and we all sat listening to the racket and batting at the bugs which had hurried in out of the wet. At ten, we began to wonder when Miss George would give up and go to bed. At a little before eleven, the rain stopped. And Grace George went up onstage with her company, and instead of walking through the play as the old lady held prisoner by two strangers and their half-witted daughter, gave a harrowing, electrifying performance that froze us to our seats. The performance ended at 1:30 A.M., after which Grace George, seventy if she was a day, sashayed serenely off to bed, looking forward to eight performances in the next six days with another travelling Sunday at the end of the week and that's what I mean by Theatremania. Her opening night performance was fine, but no finer than the performance she'd given for the staff and crew at midnight the night before, so we toasted her at our regular opening-night gin picnic. Each week, every member of the staff and crew gave Flanagan thirty-five cents and he bought gin and pretzels with it, and after the opening we had a gin picnic on the playhouse lawn.
One Monday night we drank two hundred proof hospital alcohol instead. One of the boys on the crew had a brother who was an intern at a local hospital and he filched us a bottle of hospital alcohol which we cut with Coca-Cola. You can get higher on that than you can get on Cutty Sark. You can get positively looping till after a while you can't feel your arms or legs or anything. Rita and I had a "relatively" easy summer in the box office. We whiled away the long hours between customers by playing word games and paper-and-pencil games. Battleship and hangman and Associations and Twenty Questions and What Is It? On non-matinee days each of us was allowed to take the box office alone for two afternoon hours while the other went swimming or rowing - or just stood outside and felt the sun and saw the sky, which all by itself was a change. Those afternoons gave us the strength to face the trauma of matinee days. The trauma was due to a crisis, which arose absolutely incessantly.
As regularly as Wednesday matinee time arrived, either (a) some camp descended on us, 200 campers and 15 counselors strong, demanding the tickets they'd sent us a check for - only we'd thought they were coming Saturday so we'd saved 215 Saturday seats and sold today's seats to 215 other customers, and since the theatre only seated 300, there was no place to put the camp; or (b) we had 215 seats saved for the camp and the camp never showed up, having meant their check to cover 215 seats for next Wednesday. The crisis took a lot out of us every time, not to mention what it took out of Bela Blau. He was a very kind and good-humored man and he never once lost his temper with us, but after the first three or four matinee days he began to acquire a hunted look. By the end of July all the fight went out of him, and for the rest of the summer the three of us simply resigned ourselves to a succession of traumatic Wednesday and Saturday afternoons. Saturday was frantic altogether. Ticket sale in the morning, then the matinee crisis, then the evening ticket-sales rush, and at nine o'clock, when we closed the box office to the public, we had the entire week's receipts to tot up and balance. Including subtracting the tax on each ticket.
I suppose if you had any talent for math you could have totted up our week's gross in half an hour, but it took Reta Shaw and me from nine till midnight, even with Bela helping. And when we were all through we were usually a dollar short. At midnight on Saturday, we went into the theatre for our voluntary job of keeping the backstage crew awake and on their toes all night as they struck last week's set and mounted next week's. Reta and I made coffee and played records for them till four or five in the morning while they hauled scenery under Flanagan's supervision. I'll tell you how he happened to explain Flanagan's Law to me. It was on a horrendous night when the male star of the show arrived in his dressing room fifteen minutes before curtain time, roaring drunk. Flanagan came charging out to the box office to tell us the news and describe the uproar backstage. Since the play was a comedy, I said; "He may get through it, drunk as he is. The audience may think he's just playing the part very broadly. Otherwise it'll be a fiasco and we'll have to return their money." "Neither will happen," said Flanagan, "because you predicted them. If you can predict it, it doesn't happen. In the theatre, no matter what happens to you, it's unexpected. So of course I bet him one or the other would happen. Bela Blau held the curtain till nine, but the star was still too drunk to walk straight or talk distinctly, and it was impossible to keep the audience waiting longer.
At nine, Reta and I closed the box office and hurried into the theatre and hung over the back rail and watched in suspense as the curtain rose and the two minor characters who opened the play began their ten-minute scene, at the end of which the star was to make his entrance. Five minutes after the play began, there was a reverberating clap of thunder followed by a torrent of rain on the pine roof and walls and the play came to an abrupt halt. The curtain fell, the house lights went up and the audience settled good-naturedly to wait out the storm. At a little after ten, the rain stopped - by which time the star had been dragged out into the rain and forced to swallow a vat of black coffee, and when the curtain rose again he was thoroughly sober. The play proceeded without a hitch and I've believed in Flanagan's Law ever since.